Conor McGregor's a changing man. If you read both parts of my piece "The Puncher's Path," then you already know that some of those changes are not necessarily for the best. On the other hand, if you watched McGregor destroy Dennis Siver Sunday night, you know that a great many of them are.
As McGregor finds the truest incarnation of his own personal style--no matter what you think that is--it's impossible not to appreciate his skills. The man is a tremendous martial artist, gifted with heavy hands and determined to find the best way of utilizing them. No, Dennis Siver was never going to beat McGregor, but he did provide something of a soft open for McGregor's title aspirations. Siver throws kicks--not quite like Aldo, but certainly better than any of McGregor's previous UFC opponents. He also counter punches--not nearly as well as Aldo, but then again who does? No matter how certain Siver's fate was, the bout told us some things about McGregor that provide insight into his chances against the featherweight champ.
I've written extensively about McGregor's shrinking defensive repertoire, and we'll touch on that later, but what doesn't get a lot of coverage is how rapidly the Irishman is growing his offensive skillset. No, I'm not talking about his coveted array of flashy--but ultimately ineffective--spinning kicks. Rather, it's McGregor's boxing that tends to get the job done these days. As McGregor grows more comfortable in the pocket, the length and variety of his combinations increases, often with stunning results.
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1. McGregor enters range with his right foot first.
2. Quickly, he flashes his right hand in Siver's face, obstructing his vision . . .
3. . . .and immediately follows with the straight left. Siver, sensing the incoming attack, successfully slips.
4. No matter--McGregor resets . . .
5. . . . and capitalizes on the threat of his left hand by stepping forward again, this time slightly to the inside of Siver's left foot.
6. He launches a head kick at Siver's head as the German slips, expecting the left hand.
7. Siver tries to counter while McGregor resets from his kick, but Conor simply shoves him back with a palm to the face.
8. And as Siver's wild, missed punches throw him off-balance, McGregor steps forward . . .
9. . . . once again blinds Siver with the jab . . .
10. . . . and this time hits Siver with the 2 before he can get his head out of the way.
It bears pointing out that the diagram above is TEN whopping frames long. That's ten distinct yet inextricably connected movements from a fighter once known, with a few exceptions, for throwing single strikes.
An example: n his bout with Dave Hill, McGregor's second-to-last before coming to the UFC, McGregor threw 23 strikes at distance. That fight lasted just over nine minutes. In the Siver bout, which lasted a mere seven, McGregor threw 96 strikes at distance (my thanks to my Heavy Hands co-host and Sherdog writer Patrick Wyman for the statistics). Granted, McGregor spent more time at range with Siver than he did with Hill, who spent considerable time grappling McGregor against the fence and on the ground, but the comparison still underlines the fact that McGregor is throwing more strikes now than ever before.
Ultimately, his tenacity broke Siver. The German kickboxer attempted time and time again to slip and parry McGregor's assaults, but the Notorious one simply poured on the punches. The more defensive movements Siver was forced to make, the more mistakes he made as well. In Frame 3 above, he slips McGregor's left. In Frame 6, he slips what he thinks is a left and nearly eats a head kick, barely getting his right hand up in time. In Frame 8 his feet are square to McGregor's, in Frame 9 his feet are crossed, and in Frame 10 he is leaning back with only one foot firmly on the ground.
Meanwhile, McGregor's right foot remains trained on Siver's body in every single frame, adjusting to line up strikes but never letting his opponent out of his sights. Conor is constantly in position to attack, while Siver is increasingly out of position to defend. This is, essentially, the very definition of pressure. McGregor's pressure is not merely physical, but mental. His utter confidence in his strikes, and his determination to batter his opponents into either submission or unconsciousness, simply do not leave space for the building of any momentum on the part of his opponent.
It takes a very disciplined man to keep from crumbling under the onslaught.
It's not just McGregor's numbers that are increasing. He's also improving the variety of his punches. The flashing jab shown above is a relatively new development for the Irishman, whose right hand has typically served as nothing more than a measuring tool in past bouts. And while he's thrown a long lead uppercut for a very long time as one of many attacks built off the threat of his straight left, the short-right hand blows with which he battered Siver against the fence are previously unexplored terrain.
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1. After a missed flying knee, McGregor uses his right hand to reevaluate the distance.
2. Lunging forward with his left hand, McGregor sees Siver cover up and hunch forward to defend it.
3. So he picks up his right hand and connects with a short right uppercut instead.
4. Next comes a left hook instead of the usual straight that sneaks around Siver's right hand to land.
5. Now McGregor lands a hook with his other hand . . .
6. . . . and an uppercut with his left as Siver stumbles forward into the pocket.
7. McGregor's next hook misses, but he latches onto Siver's guard with his right hand . . .
8. . . . and throws an uppercut. Unfortunately, it misses the mark.
9. And suddenly Dennis Siver exclaims "I'm still alive in here!" with a clean right hand to McGregor's jaw.
10. Instead of backing off, McGregor uses his left hand to return Siver's hands to his guard . . .
11. . . . and smashes his ribs with a vicious right uppercut to the body.
This isn't just McGregor mindlessly increasing his output. There is serious, deliberate intelligence in his punch selection here. The right hand is always a sneakily dangerous weapon for a southpaw, but the fear instilled by Conor's killer left means that his right has even more potential to do serious damage. The right hand also serves to create openings for the left hand, and vice versa. When Siver turns his upper body one way to guard the straight left, as in Frame 2, he must open himself to a right-handed attack up the middle. And then McGregor cleverly mixes up the trajectory of his left, immediately following up with two more attacks from entirely different angles.
It doesn't leave much space for thought. It's understandable, then, that McGregor was surprised by a right hand from Siver in Frame 9. What's troubling is that he seemed to fall into a pattern of assuming that Siver was ripe for the picking, only to get hit mid-attack with a shot he failed to see. Some of that is mental--I won't explore the puncher's mentality in this article--but there are technical explanations for McGregor's vulnerability on the inside as well.
Let's go back to our first sequence, Frame 3.
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McGregor has a tendency to fall into his left hand, meaning that he throws his weight forward, expecting the obstacle of his opponent's jaw to catch him before he flies off-balance. His vulnerability during this movement is made clear when is opponent is savvy enough to slip or avoid the left, as in the example above. Notice that McGregor's left hand has passed straight through the spot where Siver's head would have been and kept on going, leaving McGregor's upper body leaned forward and his head vulnerable.
The late Emanual Steward dealt with this problem with many of his power-blessed fighters, and came up with a very simple rule to help regulate their forward momentum: the head should never pass beyond the front knee. Ideally, it shouldn't line up with it either. Using this simple cue, men like Thomas Hearns and Wladimir Klitschko--both among the most dangerous punchers in the histories of their respective divisions--retained defensive responsibility even as they knocked men's heads off their shoulders.
I've illustrated this invisible knee-line above, and you can see that McGregor's head travels well past his knee. When Siver worked up the courage to throw back, this bad habit put the Irishman in dangerous territory.
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1. McGregor uses an old tactic, grabbing Siver's left hand with his right . . .
2. . . . and stepping in with a left. Unfortunately, Siver slips this punch, visibly winding up on his favorite counter hook.
3. With McGregor's head right in range, Siver connects with the hook.
4. McGregor pulls back, narrowly avoiding a follow-up right hand from the German.
If Siver were a tad more controlled in his punching movements, or slightly longer-limbed, McGregor might have found himself in serious trouble throughout this bout, as he confidently vaulted his chin into punching range nearly every time he threw his left hand. Worse, his newfound tendency to pull straight back in defense, rather than moving his head off the center line, makes him a relatively easy target for an opponent who not only throws single counters but presses back. Had Siver taken a short step forward with the left hook in Frame 3, the right hand in Frame 4 would have landed clean, with McGregor standing tall and completely unprotected.
Now again, it's important to stress just how big a deterrent McGregor's punches and kicks are. These days, he is wont to trample his opponent's will with his offensive output long before they can build the confidence necessary to time and counter him effectively. But will Jose Aldo crumble the way Dennis Siver did? I don't know about you, but I find that distinctly unlikely.
But then, that's part of what makes the fight so damn compelling. As Conor McGregor prepares to face Jose Aldo, it's difficult to imagine that he will somehow revert to the defense-oriented fighter he once was. Nonetheless, Aldo has faced very few men with the kind of offensive potency that McGregor brings to the table.
If Aldo doesn't fight smart himself, the Joker could very well usurp his throne.
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. In today's new episode, Patrick Wyman and Connor Ruebusch break down McGregor-Siver, and next weekend's compelling light heavyweight clash between Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson, as well as some discussion of last Saturday's heavyweight boxing bout between Deontay Wilder and Bermane Stiverne.